The popular War Stories column, which presents humorous tales of life in the research trenches, has historically been compiled by Art Shulman, president of Shulman Research in Van Nuys, Calif. Each month in our e-newsletters we feature anecdotes from past War Stories columns and over time, we have received a handful of submissions from our e-newsletter readers who want to share their own outlandish or otherwise entertaining experiences of research gone just-slightly awry. Submit your own War Story today!

Showtime Stables 

December 21, 2020

Art Shulman recalls conducting focus groups with girls ages 6 to 8 about a new toy called Showtime Stables. One of the objectives was to determine the extent to which the product's commercial was noticeable in a clutter reel of commercials. When they told the hostess, who was unaware of the test product, that they were ready to begin, she went to the lobby where the kids were waiting and announced, "OK ladies, it's showtime."


December 8, 2020

Gary White recalls a focus group he was moderating for a major food manufacturer on the subject of natural foods. One cynical man felt he was making a good point when he said, "These days everything is natural. Diphtheria's natural."

Drooping flowers 

November 30, 2020 

The owner of several focus facilities, requesting anonymity, reports she'd recently opened a beautiful new facility. The day it opened, a regular client sent over a huge flower arrangement, which the service proudly displayed. The next day, the owner noticed the flowers were drooping and dying, and decided to toss them out. But as soon as she removed the flowers from the vase, thousands of gnats flew out.
At that evening's focus sessions, respondents were very animated. Not because of the test product but because of the hordes of gnats swarming around them.

Presentation jitters

November 16, 2020

Sharon Livingston tells about a speaker delivering a talk on how to avoid presentation jitters. The speaker's technique was to take two steps forward, two steps backward, then two steps forward again, and deliver the presentation.
But he didn't get to take the second set of two steps forward, because he fell off the podium while taking the two steps backward.

Interrupted by the phone

November 2, 2020

Ken Rosenhek cites a story told to him about a president of a large market research company whose presentation in the board room at his client's corporate headquarters was interrupted by the phone ringing. When the person answering the phone announced "Someone wants to know if we have a 'Secksauer' here."
One of the participants cracked "Hell no! We don't even get a coffee break!"

Paint, varnish or sealer

October 19, 2020 

David Weiss of the National Decorating Products Association reports a mail survey he conducted where consumers were asked to indicate the most recent room where they used paint or a coating like varnish or sealer. Most consumers wrote in the conventional "living room" or "den" or "deck." One respondent, however, wrote in "casket."

10 minutes late

September 14, 2020

Jewel Alderton tells a story from when she moderated a focus group in Texas. She was sitting in the respondent waiting room about 10 minutes past the scheduled start time for her group, making some last-minute changes to the discussion guide. The respondents had already been ushered into the room where the discussion would take place, leaving her alone to finish her notes. Just then, the door opened and a man entered the facility, looked at Alderton and asked, "You here for the focus group?"

"Yes," Alderton replied. "Everyone is already in the other room."

"Oh, good," he said, assuming Alderton was another respondent. "I always make it a practice to come 10 or 15 minutes late to these things. Then they pay me off and I don't have to stay."

A giant compact disc

September 1, 2020

Joel Reish was once conducting focus groups among young adults who listen to new-music radio stations. The client wanted to test their reactions to a special vehicle that the station could purchase that was designed to look like a giant compact disc. Reish showed the group a picture in which the huge 15-foot-high disc was on a trailer hooked to a truck, with people standing in front and trees in the background. Reish explained to the group that it was a mock-up of a giant CD, and a radio station could bring it to remote events or parades and such, and the disc jockey could broadcast live from a booth inside the middle of it. One earnest young woman squinted at it in confusion and then asked in all seriousness, "Can you play it?"

Ran out of the facility 

August 17, 2020

Do you ever wonder how often the following happens, as it did to an unnamed moderator: after being told a focus session was being videotaped, a woman jumped up, covered her face and ran out of the facility, stating she could not participate in the session if it was recorded on video!
A criminal? A terribly vain individual?

Telephone surveys

July 20, 2020

Mike Halberstam reports that an elderly female respondent contacted during a telephone survey asked how she was selected to be called. The interviewer advised her that her number came out of a computer. The indignant woman complained, "That's ridiculous! I have never, ever put my number into any computer!"

Exceptionally polite

July 6, 2020

Some respondents, bless their hearts, are exceptionally polite, to the extent of being reluctant to ever interrupt the interviewer. Years ago, Art Shulman was reminded of this when monitoring a study. The interviewer asked, "Which of the following groups best describes your total household income?" She proceeded to read all the income categories: under $20,000, $20,000 to $29,999, $30,000 to $39,999, and so on. It was only after she'd finished reading the final of nine alternatives - $150,000 and over - that the respondent said, "The first one you read, under $20,000."


June 22, 2020

A number of years ago, Art Shulman was conducting in-depth interviews with insurance agents. The appointments were arranged by the parent insurance company. One of the interviews was with the largest producer in the country of a particular type of insurance policy. But it was clear when Shulman began questioning that he really didn’t want to be there, answering in as few words as possible. 

Shulman recognized him from a sports broadcast years before. And so, Shulman stopped asking insurance questions and shared what he remembered about that broadcast.  

The interviewee had been a professional football player, the best kick returner of his day. He was on a bad team, though. His team was losing something like 35 to nothing, late in the game, which was played on the other team’s field. The other team had just scored a touchdown, and kicked off to his team. He received the kick, started running and didn’t stop until he’d reached the endzone. Touchdown! The fans in the stands (theoretically the "enemy" stands) gave him a standing ovation. They had just seen the athlete actually do what he was famous for!  

After that, he thoughtfully responded to all of Shulman's insurance questions.

Married for 58 years

June 8, 2020

Diane Okrent remembers running in-depth interviews in the days before focus group facilities required respondents to show photo identification. One memory includes IDIs focused on adults up to age 65. A woman, appearing to be over 65, showed up. After a few pleasantries, Okrent asked to confirm some information, “It says here that you are 65.” She looked Okrent right in the eye and said, “I’m 65.” 

During the interview, the woman told Okrent she had been married to her first husband for 45 years and she had remarried. 

Later, Okrent asked, “How long have you been married to your current husband?”  The woman replied, “Thirteen years.”

So, this 65-year-old woman had been married for a total of 58 years!


May 26, 2020 

Sue Gartzman will confirm that market research can sometimes drive you buggy. She tells about conducting a focus group where a ladybug was on the table next to her name tag. Pretty benign, she figured, so she brushed it away.
The respondents came in and got settled. During introductions, she noticed another ladybug crawling on the table. She brushed it and it flew away. Then one landed on a respondent, who brushed it away. When introductions were finished and the discussion began, Gartzman saw another bug fly in the air. She looked up, and the light fixtures were swarming with ladybugs. By now she was completely distracted and feeling really creepy-crawly, and her respondents were feeling a little strange too!
Fortunately, after stepping out in somewhat of a panic and alerting the facility operator to the situation, her group and a back room full of viewers were able to move to another room. She'd thought it was going to be the first time she canceled a group due to ladybugs!

Pure water

May 11, 2020

A researcher preferring anonymity tells about being an interviewer early in his career, conducting a survey sponsored by a particular regional brand of beer. The brand's advertising was based on the fact that the beer was made using pure water from a particular lake. One respondent, when asked if he found anything hard to believe about the advertising, said he did. The cause of his skepticism? "I once visited that lake and saw a man standing on the shore peeing into it," he said.

Pads as bandages

April 27, 2020

Linda Fitzpatrick shared experiences relates to her early career at an advertising agency. When Fitzpatrick was working on the sanitary protection category, sales data showed a substantial and unexpected spike in the CDI for certain Western states. It turns out that farmers in the area were using pads as bandages for cows that had been wounded by barbed wire fencing.

Checking his appearance

April 13, 2020

Joe Koerner recalls the time, early in his career with a St. Louis research company, when he was scheduled to present the results of focus sessions to a large New York advertising agency. Koerner was escorted to a meeting room and nervously lined up his charts and the overhead. Just before the agency account team came into the room he decided to check his appearance. He determined that his tie was straight, his shirt tucked in and the vest buttons on his new three-piece suit were perfect. And, just as the agency folks walked in, that his fly was open.

Bratty little brother

April 1, 2020

Most kids responding to questionnaires tend to be shy and polite. Kevin Reilly shared a survey example where one little girl, when asked how she'd play with a new doll, said, "With my little sister, and very carefully." In contrast, a perhaps more truthful girl in the same survey said, "I'd break it over my bratty little brother's head."

All the boxes

March 23, 2020

Warren Weiss recalls a survey where, in response to the question, "Please check what level of education
you've completed," one bright Ph.D. checked all the boxes.

"Iron still gets hot" 

March 9, 2020

Moderator Saul Cohen reports that during interviews on electric irons, a woman reported receiving the client's product 11 years ago as a wedding present. When Cohen asked if it still worked, the woman
inquired, "The iron or the marriage?"

"Whichever," answered Cohen.  

To which the woman answered, "Well, the iron still gets hot."


February 24, 2020

Amie Steinberg, speaking at an American Marketing Association meeting, reported that in one of his surveys consumers were asked on an aided basis which of the potential candidates for senator they were aware of. One consumer indicated that he had heard of none of the candidates, who included the current senator of the state, a former vice president of the United States and several other luminaries. Later in the survey, when asked what was the greatest problem facing the nation today, the same respondent replied, "Apathy." 

A former prizefighter 

February 10, 2020

Betsy Bernstein of Bernstein Research Group recalls a recent focus group among small business owners, where the owner of a boxing firm – a former prizefighter – started actively using his phone for e-mails and texting. The boxer had arrived at the session late and missed the initial phones off reminder, so to keep him engaged with the session, Bernstein politely asked him to turn his phone off. He said no; he needed to stay in touch with his business. OK. Small business. He had already said that his business is his life. 

A few minutes later he proceeded to stand up and pass out business cards to everyone in the group. Bernstein asked him if he could defer this activity until the end of the session, at which point this prizefighter said she was "really beginning to piss him off." The group helped reach a detente and the session ended without incident. 

An hour after the session ended, the facility received an call from the boxer with an apology. He thought he had been invited to a networking event where he was paying $250 to attend. Imagine his surprise when he received $250 instead. 

The moral of the story? Even though we think we are explaining the research process – many times and through many channels – to the inexperienced respondent, coming to a focus group isn't always what they expect it to be. 

Fled the room

January 27, 2020

Gerald Linda was mystified once when a respondent, upon being told the group was being videotaped, hid his face and fled the room. Pity! Fugitives from justice have opinions, too.

Another time, Linda reports, one member of the "dissatisfied" group recruited for a focus group tried to get the other group members to sign an affidavit. It turns out he was in the midst of a lawsuit against
the client.

In the dumpster

January 13, 2020 

Kevin Dona tells a story of working as a young analyst in the CPG arena, where a colleague was managing an in-home test of a new dip. She approached Dona one day in a slight panic and said, "I don't know what to do about these results." It was a simple question of where consumers expected to find the product in the store. Enough people selected "other specify" with the response "in the dumpster" that it was coded and showing up in the client tables. After tasting the sample, Dona recommended leaving that consumer suggestion.